Game-Changers: How Crisis Affects Children’s Play

“Culture arises and unfolds in and as play.” ~ Johan Huizinga, Dutch historian.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

As a novel virus circulates the globe, halting commerce and plunging humankind into a waking slumber of feverish panic buying and virtue signalling, a peculiar juxtaposition between children’s play and catastrophe emerges. Human occupations — that is, work, leisure, social participation, spiritual undertakings and self-care — are now drastically altered in form and tempo. Nothing is the way it was before. For children, whose primary occupation is play, the pandemic is a literal game-changer.

Children are hardly oblivious to massive scale events. If anything, they’re hyper-aware of the issues that trouble their adult counterparts, yet they lack the life experience and the resource of hindsight to temper the anxiety. Children do not have the ability to process fully the events unfolding around them. It is, after all, not their responsibility to shoulder the existential burdens that afflict adults. But perhaps, in times of crisis and uncertainty, children are the most psychologically vulnerable of us all.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recognizes children’s emotional vulnerability to disaster. According to its literature, the extent of this vulnerability depends on three key variables: 1) the extent of exposure to the event, 2) the amount of support during the disaster and its aftermath, and 3) the extent of personal loss and disruption. The term ‘disaster’ is broad — it could refer to an immediate, acutely life-threatening event like interpersonal violence or a natural disaster. It can also refer to an event that causes long-lasting occupational disruption, one that might not directly (or physiologically) affect the child but can indirectly cause psycho-social distress. The pandemic, at least for those not directly affected by infection or that of a loved one, is one such event.

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A recent article in The Atlantic (‘How the Coronavirus is Influencing Children’s Play’) brought to mind the contentious folk theory that the nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring ‘o Roses is an allegory for the Black Death (note references in the verse to a rosy-red rash, the aromatic posies to conceal the smell of death, the performance of sneezing). It would seem that the rhyme, if its plague-inspired origins weren’t largely dismissed as unfounded, is the perfect example of ‘plague play’, or, more generally speaking, the re-enactment of catastrophic historical events in children’s games.

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Dramatic play has taken on coronavirus themes with children adapting Doctor-Doctor to feature enactments of detection (pretend-swabbing), diagnosis and intervention (play-acting CPR, giving out imaginary medications, ‘quarantining’ stuffed animals in shoe-boxes). Some have repurposed everyday toys to feature in corona-games, as seen in ‘Coronaball’, which The Atlantic describes as a game of dodge-ball using a spiky plastic ball to resemble the virus. Caregivers give accounts of witnessing the unsavory ‘Coronavirus Tag’, a variation of the common playground game of chase in which players tag each other by coughing on them. Players can achieve immunity from ‘infection’ by mimicking PPE (putting on a hood equals a ‘hazmat suit’; covering one’s mouth with a sleeve counts as a ‘face mask’).

Sometimes, younger children use play to imitate traumatic experiences and related themes. The AAP dubs this phenomenon ‘joyless repetitive play’. It is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), comparable to flashbacks or invasive, unwanted thoughts that cause a person to relive trauma. Joyless play is not, in my view, true play. But how do we tell the difference? The coronavirus games emerging on playgrounds aren’t necessarily akin to joyless repetitive play. That’s not to say that PTSD from COVID-19-related events and subsequent re-enactments of trauma through play aren’t possible — they are. But how do we recognize the difference? When should we be concerned about ‘corona-tag’, and when should we see this kind of play as positive, inner resource-building exercise that fosters resilience?

Repetitive re-enactment of trauma is not true play; it is a symptom of a normal emotional response to disaster and occurs as part of a series of stages. Joyless play usually comes some time after the initial event, days to weeks, and in conjunction with other signs such as apathy, hostility, behavioral regression and sleep disturbance. If this stage persists to the extent that it interferes with normal childhood activities, or if the symptomology does not fade or disappear after a few weeks, it may be investigated as possible PTSD. A group of children playing ‘corona-tag’ might well be using the game to process the strange, uncertain times they’re living through while having fun and building resilience at the same time.

Resilience is a child’s capacity to prosper in trying times, and to recover from stressful events without suffering lasting, damaging effects of the disruption or trauma. It’s not up to the child alone to build resilience; it also depends on the extent of community and familial support, and the resources made available to foster resilience. Play is one such resource. It comes naturally to the child. It lets them maintain a sense of control and autonomy in times of crisis and uncertainty. Play must continue, through the good times and the dark ones. No matter the horrors raging outside, it would be unthinkable that children’s play should cease. It’s the lifeblood of childhood, the language of young minds and bodies trying to figure out an increasingly complex world. Without it, children are all but muted.

In an address at Stanford University in December of 1950, Dr Lois Meek Stolz, a professor of psychology attested that “the playing of war games should not be forbidden, but rather viewed as a natural outlet for emotional tensions.” Stolz’s reference to wartime games brings to mind two related, but distinct phenomena: play that dramatizes scenes from war, and play that takes place in close proximity to scenes of war in actuality.

War, plague and human suffering hardly seem the environments conducive to play as most people know it — carefree, self-determined, jovial, light-hearted. But play has many other facets beyond frivolity. It is performative, narrative, even subversive. It can exist even in the most hostile of conditions. George Eisen examines children’s play and its ability to withstand adverse circumstances in his book, Children and Play in the Holocaust. One might not comfortably associate the concepts play and Holocaust, yet Jewish children, many of whom lived short, terrible lives in extermination camps, continued to play. By design, children in the ghettos and camps were deliberately deprived of cultural, social and aesthetic life. They never set foot in gardens, parks, sports grounds or theaters. Their play was not interrupted; it was crushed.

Decades later, childhood play faces a new, different set of obstacles. In a modern pandemic, children’s play does not need to exist in close company with abject suffering as it has done in the past. Let us hope that play will never again be forced to take place alongside horror and death as it did for Jewish children during the Holocaust. In the recent months spanning the COVID-19 outbreak, play has been merely confined, cloistered. Play is being limited and controlled with benevolent intention, rather than as an act of destructiveness, to protect rather than to oppress. It is not a matter of children sustaining games in the midst of visible terror by, for example, playing beside funeral hearses in Nazi-occupied ghettos. Play in response to a 21st-century pandemic involves children having to make sense of something invisible, something that, apart from situations of having a close friend or family member come in contact with the virus — may seem far removed from themselves. Play is how socially isolated children make sense of an invisible threat from within the adult-enforced boundaries of protection and infection control.

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Though incomparable to the violent histories of the World Wars, the pandemic is an event the children of 2020 will always remember. They’ll recall the long months of indoor confinement; school abruptly ending; not being allowed to visit friends and family; grandparents suddenly off-limits; seeing teachers and family members through screens; adults they used to embrace freely suddenly keeping them at arm’s length, trying to hide their own heartache at having to do so; the world resembling a low-budget sci-fi, with people wearing face coverings and visors, side-stepping one another and looking worried.

In The Game of Death, Albert E. Kahn describes the effects of Cold War policy on American children. As whispers of the atomic bomb entered young imaginations, fear and anxiety crept into their play. Children’s daily lives quivered on a hair’s breadth between the imaginary and the likely reality. In mid-century classrooms, American children experienced the spatial changes in response to the threat: alongside mathematics and biology lessons, they were taught bomb drills that included assuming crouched positions under tables or standing with their backs to windows when a teacher gave the signal.

This is not play, but, like play, it’s an enactment of an imagined possibility, the daily performance of actions that might, someday, become necessary responses to a real-time threat. When the media drew attention to children’s escalating anxiety, the New York State Department of Education in a memorandum to the heads of schools suggested that the bomb drills be adapted into “fairly natural, everyday experience[s]…as we have learned to brush our teeth…” In practice, this meant taking young children on weekly trips to bomb shelters and making a game of it, giving them roles as ‘airplane spotters’, or creating macabre obstacle courses that involved crawling under objects or hiding in barrels and boxes to escape imaginary flying shrapnel.

The global threat in 1950? The atomic bomb. In 2020, an invisible pathogen for which there is no vaccine. The obvious difference is the fear of the unknown for the children of the atomic age, the potential for an attack, compared to those of the pandemic age, which involves managing risk related to an actual, measurable, transmissible threat. Today’s child’s ‘crisis curriculum’ — ostensibly less dramatic than crises of the past — involves social and personal hygiene, rather than bomb drills. Bombs and viruses are two very different things, but both have had effects on the children of the time, particularly, in their play.

A powerful part of play is the freedom to suspend reality (Occupational Therapists will be familiar with this concept in Anita Bundy’s Model of Playfulness). By suspending reality, children explore alternative narratives, counteracting the culture’s fatalism by becoming authors of their own, albeit imagined, stories. This is how play provides a semblance of control in a chaotic world.

Photo by Christina Corso on Reshot

For Jewish children in the Vilna ghetto, the game “Jews and Gestapomen” saw Jews ‘shooting’ the Nazis with sticks representing rifles and emerging victorious against their oppressors. Though far less extreme, one can observe the notion of reality-suspension and authorship in the COVID-era child whose rendition of ‘Doctor-Doctor’ ends in the successful recovery of a loved one from the virus.

But what if the outcomes aren’t happy? What if the play involves rehearsals of violence or distressing conclusions? In the ghettos, Jewish children played ‘klepsi-klepsi’, enacting the cruel daily roll call when Nazi officers humiliated and physically abused inmates. The playground version involved blindfolding a player and having another hit them through the face. The player who was hit has to guess who did it. For the children incarcerated at Auschwitz, ‘Doctor-Doctor’ featured a physician requiring a bribe before treating the patient. Other grim games simulated the quotidian horrors children witnessed, from ‘seizing clothes from the dead’ to ‘blowing up bunkers’. Play of this kind is spine-chilling to the outside observer. The early play theorist Karl Groos advised parents not to leave children’s play entirely unsupervised. He believed that play should be initiated by adults, and that adults were responsible for monitoring the content of play and discouraging inappropriate games.

Today’s child has access to more mass-produced toys, electronics and games than ever before. Yet, despite the abundance of choice, our present circumstances necessitate that we set strict boundaries for play to prevent infection. The least we can do for COVID-era children is to leave them be and not interrupt play that explores difficult themes of isolation, fear, loss, change, enforced distance, illness, death. The alternative would be to deprive them of their natural language. Play, in its many forms, is a powerful crisis resource for children. Whether its content features the crisis directly in dramatic re-enactment or serves as a light-hearted distraction from stressful circumstances, play is an instinct that builds childhood resilience.

writing person | occupational therapist | never seen a ghost. I write about food, weird histories, human behavior, and our lives under late capitalism

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